The creative vehicle that drives the Tricycle Theatre’s production of Don Evans’ 1982 play One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show is that the show assumes the format of a classic 1970s sitcom. At its opening, each character is introduced in a fashion that resembles opening credits, an illuminated “On Air” sign hangs atop the very television studio-like set, and characters are routinely greeted with an applause track upon their entrances. While this gimmick adds some charm and uniqueness to the show, there are reasons that theatre is not often performed like television sitcoms. Unfortunately, Dawn Walton’s direction at the Tricycle Theatre doesn’t convince us otherwise.
Set in 1970s Philadelphia, One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show focuses primarily on an upper class black family who reside in the best part of town. When Avery and Myra (played with impressive comic timing by both Karl Collins and Jocelyn Jee Esien) take in the daughter of Avery’s recently deceased brother, they are forced to cross paths with members of their race from whom they typically take pride in distancing themselves . Their niece, Beverley (Rebecca Scroggs), sports overalls and speaks with a heavy Southern drawl, and Caleb (Clifford Samuel), her father’s former best friend and her new legal guardian, is a nightclub owner downtown. Avery and Myra’s 19-year-old son, Felix (Isaac Ssebandeke), finds his life deeply intertwined with a girl his parents wouldn’t approve of after his first sexual experience leads to a possible pregnancy.
At its best, the show humorously and smartly examines race, class, gender and sexuality. The dialogue challenges double standards about gender and sexuality both subtly and directly, in ways that are fitting for the time period and still relevant today. At its worst, however, the show drags laboriously while telling the stories of characters that we neither care about nor believe are real.
This is where the sitcom style, and Dawn Walton’s direction, halt the momentum that is needed throughout the show. Many of the actors employ exaggerated physical comedy and obnoxious character voices (such as the already annoyingly squeaky-sounding Felix literally exclaiming, “Humph!” before dramatically shrugging, pouting, and stomping offstage) and serves as a constant reminder that their characters are nothing but fictionalised personalities aiming to entertain. This ruins any sincerity that the show should capture, and causes the serious scenes to fall flat and feel out of place. In addition, the characters are hardly likable enough to really win our affection, making it even harder to truly care about the events in the play. The actors clearly have talent, and it was frustrating to see it frequently offset by the caricature-like feel of the show.
The effort to creatively defy conventions and traditional structure is a respectable one, but unfortunately for One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show, it turns out to be more hindering than it is successful. When the play’s substance isn’t buried in its tiresome format, there are truly refreshing moments of insight and comedy. Maybe I’ve just seen one too many sitcom re-run, but it just seemed to take too much digging to get there.
One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show is playing at the Tricycle Theatre until 9 February. For more information and tickets, click here.